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The Dhankuta Sisters Handicrafts Nepal
I had heard so much about Kathmandu, and its reputation for banana, hemp, and organic production, so was eager to see some fibre processing in action. But, I was out of luck, it turns out production season was over and I had missed the chance…this time!
On a very positive note wondering in Kupondel, in the district of Lalitpur, Kathmandu we came across an ace shop called The Dhankuta Sisters Handicrafts, Nepal. A Personal and peaceful shop full of amazing handmade silk and cotton shawls, woven nettle or ‘aloo’ as it’s called in Nepal and all sorts of skill infused goodies. I got talking to Nita to find out more about the company.
It’s a family business involving Nita, her sister and their mother and has been in the Kupondel area for 22 years. Together they contemporize traditional Dhaka handloom weaving, with subtly awesome colour combinations and a modern take on the traditional Dhaka patterns of Eastern Nepal. All are skilled weavers, and the mother has expertise in directing colour combinations and pattern designs and is also a teacher to the weavers.
It’s about sharing and helping one another. Dhankuta Sisters Handicrafts does not exist without its weavers, and its weavers cannot work without the business. The company brings contemporary skills and income generation to the weavers, and the weavers provide the highly skilled handicrafts that allow the business to continue running. Both sides invest in one another to create an equal relationship.
It is a small but fruitful affair with two or three weavers based at home, allowing them to care for their children. The weavers have been know to pop in a colour or two differing from the provided pattern so the ladies visit the weavers at home to check if things are going accordingly, Nita said one colour change of thread can ruin a weeks worth of weaving, so its important weavers stick to the patterns.
The sign outside the shop notes ‘we believe in fair trade’, I wanted to know if they were involved with ‘Fairtrade’ itself. In the past, private companies were not allowed to become Fairtrade, but these days it has opened up and big companies have opted for Fairtrade status. In areas such as Thamel, the touristy areas of Kathmandu, there are numerous shops claiming to, and some rightfully selling Organic, Vegetable dyed, Banana and fairly traded garments. But how can this be, the market in this area is completely saturated, meaning heavy competition and consequential cheap prices. How is it possible that their weavers receive a decent price in a competitive market such as Thamel’s and how many of these shops can prove their claimed Organic or Fair Trade status is little more than attractive words drawing in travelers looking for that item with a heart.
The Dhankuta Sisters Handicrafts does not receive help from the government nor NGO’s. It is through the support of friends and family…. By the first year of business they knew they wanted to be ‘independent’ working without the help of other shops and NGO’s to sell and promote their work, and free of ‘middlemen’ transporting their products. By 1987 with the help of a grant, they were able to rent their first shop in Kathmandu, doing what they are good at: Creative and Experimental knitting in silk, wool, banana fibre and Allo, and beautiful Dhaka weavings.
Nita points out that although the prices may be a little more expensive than other shops, all those involved in the business know and understand the skills involved because they are weavers themselves. This means they know the meaning of the price ensuring weavers receive a respectable sum for the products they so skillfully craft. The other aspect of this is that the customer receives a delicate and thoughtfully prepared piece, that both the weaver and seller have poured time and effort onto.
On asking about the handicrafts of bamboo, paintings, illustrations, and place mats, I discovered they had been purchased through cooperation with small groups. In some cases working relationships became unreliable, and some seemed uninterested. I have to say I can relate to this! During my travels I have come across a number of people and shops too who are not interested in being part of something which has the potential to benefit them greatly.
But for those to whom correspondence and development is valued: a must for a good business relationship, the connection is fruitful and beneficial to all. The shop also promotes products from Happy House, a Fair Trade company selling crafts from Chitwan and Dhanaugee ethnic groups of East and South Nepal, established in 1999 to preserve Nepali tradition and improve life quality for disadvantaged groups. They sell Organic honey, Tharu paintings, waxed cotton paintings, grass and bamboo baskets, as well as Maithili crafts such as fabrics, clothing and others by the Women’s Development Project.
It has been a real pleasure to meet Nita and see The Dhankuta Sisters shop. I have seen signs all across Nepal saying ‘come as a guest leave as a friend’, and I know it’s cheesy but I felt like a friend when I left this place.
At present they do not have a website, and there are a few probs with her email so I will send her a letter shortly. Dhankuta Weavers are not one to miss, and I’m going to make sure of it! Soon they will be on The Network too...